Abroad, OPEC is striving to prop up the price of oil. Here at home the education monopoly is striving to hold down parents and children.
Case in point: last week's appalling charter school debacle in Michigan.
A charter school is a public school that is allowed to operate free of many of the restrictions and union agreements that have done so much to turn existing schools into educational quagmires.
After four years of haggling, a compromise was worked out between Gov. Jennifer Granholm and GOP legislative leaders allowing the commissioning of 150 new charter schools during the next 10 years, nearly doubling their number. A Metro Detroit businessman and philanthropist, Robert Thompson, helped break the four-year deadlock by promising to fund, out of his own pocket, 15 charter schools in hard-pressed Detroit at a cost of up to $200 million.
Not good enough, declared the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Looking this gift horse square in the mouth, the DFT announced a march on Lansing by teachers to protest the deal. Detroit's beleaguered school superintendent was forced to declare a holiday for Detroit's 173,000 students, half of whom won't graduate on schedule and nearly all of whom score well below national standards.
Facing pressure from the union, Detroit's mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who only a week earlier appeared to support the charter school bill, reversed his support. Each charter school student, Kilpatrick loudly complained, would drain $7,000 a year in state support from existing public schools. Never mind that, as a Detroit News editorial disclosed last week, his children attend a charter academy.
Granholm also headed for the tall grass. Professing to discover some fine print in the bill she didn't like, she too reneged on her agreement.
Perhaps some deal on charter schools in Michigan, which had previously been one of the national leaders in the charter school movement, will still be worked out. But the price is likely to be high, including new rules that will drive to the vanishing point any important difference between state-supported charter schools and existing public schools.
It's not just the inner-city schools that act like a monopoly. In Detroit's well-heeled suburbs, whose parents are prone to the delusion that their schools are different, the scandal of the summer was the discovery that the Oakland County intermediate school district had built itself a $30 million office building, was spending lavishly for travel and entertainment, and had engaged in questionable contracting practices. This from the government entity charged with funneling federal, state and local dollars into the education of children with special needs.
Monopoly is everywhere the same: It works to keep prices high and quality low. Alas for monopolists, such efforts usually founder when they run up against marketplace realities. OPEC has had only sporadic success over the years in propping up the price of oil, and its recent announcement of yet another agreement to limit production is likely to be no different. Likewise, parents seeking a better deal for their kids -- there reportedly are more than 12,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools in Michigan alone -- are likely to find a way around the public education monopoly.
Congress is only a few votes shy of agreement on a voucher system in the District of Columbia that would allow parents to take their education dollars to a school of their choice. Milwaukee's much-publicized voucher experiment is now solidly entrenched -- and successful, according to studies. And Colorado and Florida have been experimenting with statewide voucher systems. Vouchers would provide direct competition to public schools, which is why the unions hate the idea so much.
Still, as the Michigan case makes clear, the K-12 unions won't go down without a fight -- even if it means a lot of kids will get hurt. Things won't really change until parents get mad enough to actively demand it.
Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist.